Karen Johnson: Health Care with a Personal Touch
Barrington M. Salmon | 11/14/2012, 8:43 a.m.
The plan offers qualified seniors a network of doctors and specialists, hearing and vision services, free transportation to medical appointments and medical supplies shipped directly to their homes.
On the national stage, Johnson said she appreciates the Obama health plan because of its ability to help people achieve greater health outcomes.
"I don't care about the politics," she said. "I grew up in Detroit, in nursing and public health. I saw the same types of people - the vulnerable, women, babies and seniors."
Johnson's diverse background makes her eminently suited for her current job. She earned an undergraduate and graduate degree from her father's alma mater, the University of Michigan, holds a law degree and has more than 25 years experience in nursing, management and sales.
"I bring a very holistic background to health care," she said with a laugh. "I learned how to think analytically. I like data and I like to ask a lot of questions. I don't like to waste money. Maybe it's because I had grandparents who lived through the Great Depression."
One of her major influences, Johnson said, is her paternal grandmother.
"She was one heck of a lady. She came from the South," Johnson recalled. "She was in the middle of 11 girls, born of an interracial couple. [On the trip North], her dad drove and her mother was covered up because he could not be seen with a black woman."
Johnson described her grandmother as a woman who was very intelligent and wanted to go to college but because of her circumstances, she couldn't. However, she instilled that desire and intellectual curiosity in Johnson.
"She was the one who told me I could do and be anything," said Johnson with a broad smile. "She was a strong lady, very opinionated. I spent a lot of time with her because she lived around the block."
Johnson said she accompanied her grandmother to clean white folks' homes, "and that's where I learned the value of money. I worked with her and she paid me."
As an undergrad, Johnson said, she had a rough time as one of a handful of black students in a dorm of about 700 white students. She said she wanted to leave, but her father, Charles Walker, said he would only allow her to transfer if she was failing academically.
"So I made it my mission to graduate at the top of my class," said Johnson. "I faced the same things in law school. Interestingly, in the work world, it didn't matter what I looked like. Professionally, it hasn't been a barrier. My best mentors were white and men."
Johnson said the company has invested in her development and allowed her to take classes at the Wharton School of Business.
When she's not logging long hours on the job, Johnson - wife and mother of a blended family of five - said she does what she loves: traveling and reading.
"Paris is my favorite city because it's so cosmopolitan. There are all kinds of people and I love the museums," she said. "You can stop and have a bottle of wine at a cafe. I could see myself retiring there."
Johnson said she also has a special love for Jamaica as evidenced by her having visited the island nation 11 times.